Between 2013 and 2015 the district of Yarmouk, the world’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, was subject to a blockade by the Syrian regime. No one was allowed in or out. Abdallah Al-Khatib and some of his friends picked up cameras and began documenting the experiences, and the resilience, of their fellow residents.
Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) is a very simple film; a chronological digest of footage of snatched moments from Yarmouk during the siege. In the beginning we see people frustrated, but going about their lives, but as the film runs on the town vanishes around them as buildings fall to mortar fire, something the residents grow so accustomed to that at a certain point they seem unfazed by it (or, in several cases, to welcome the possibility of being caught by it).
Even more critical than this though is are the food shortages. We hear residents discuss how they used to be allowed out to buy food, but now the blockade is in place even that isn’t possible. Hunger becomes endemic. In one of the saddest exchanges, after the food distribution point is shelled, we hear a resident say “they could drop both, barrel bombs and wheat, we’ll take it”. At a point where we’re seeing, and complaining about, some gaps on supermarket shelves in the UK, this is a real shot of perspective. The shelling and shortages throw up some crushingly sad imagery; skeletons lie in the street, a baby is visibly emaciated for lack of milk, an elderly couple picks through a pile of rubbish, sharing the scraps they find.
Abdallah Al-Khatib doesn’t offer up much context for the larger political background, but he hardly needs to; there’s no circumstance under which this would be an acceptable way to make people live. We see citizen journalism all the time now, for good and for ill, but this is as direct and powerful a use of it as I’ve seen for a while.
The film’s most powerful moment, and probably the single longest time it spends on anything approaching a traditional interview, comes right near the end with Tasmin, a girl of roughly eight years old picking and trimming grass to take home for her mother to cook. She says she’s not afraid of the shelling, coming across as articulate beyond her years and hopeful, if sad behind it all, she smiles as she lays out the incredible poverty her large family lives in; putting a brave face on even when a shell falls on a building not far away. Of all the images, hers might be the one that stays longest with me.
Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) isn’t the most structured of films, it doesn’t offer up much beyond documentation. That said, it’s valuable just as a ground level look at humanity in desolate circumstances and what we’re willing to put each other through. It’s also not a film that is going to wrap things up in a comforting bow for you, indeed the closing captions suggest that things may only have got worse after Al-Khatib’s camera stopped rolling. None of this makes the film an easy watch, but it is perhaps a necessary one.